No Deposit, Big Return

Wendell Banks slithers along a narrow passage between cars before bursting into the open with as much pseudo-official bravado as his tattered clothing will allow. He wants to look authoritative as he quick-steps across the municipal parking lot at the corner of S.W. First Street and S.W. Second Avenue. When he closes in on a woman who is about to feed quarters into a parking meter, she freezes like a deer in the headlights of this confidence train, this Man in Charge.

"I got that, ma'am. I got it," he announces, motioning the woman away as if she were about to do something, if not wrong, than at least silly. He cradles the meter for a moment, then presses something into the slot and turns the spring-driven handle. The meter racks up minutes with that familiar metallic rip, like the sound of stripping gears, and the dial moves all the way to the three-hour mark, three dollars' worth of time. By way of thanks, the surprised woman hands Banks some of the change she would have poured into the slot.

Like any trickster, Banks is reluctant to reveal his secret A the small objects he "shoots" into meters to steal time. "They're from a particular product which I will not name. I was shootin' one day up the street there and I found that this particular product worked real well."

To Harold Manasa, chief financial officer for the Miami Parking System, there is neither mystery nor magic in what Banks and hundreds like him do: it's theft, and it has gotten out of hand. "Miami has the worst meter rip-off problem of any city of its size," Manasa gripes. "No one in Dade County, nor for that matter in the country, can hold a candle to us."

Worse, Manasa fears, the citizenry might be tempted to view people who shoot meters as colorful street characters, instead of the lowest form of criminals, stealing the city's money and damaging its property. The bandits' methods also tend to jam the meters, he says, creating headaches for the city's repair crews. Yet more troubling from Manasa's point of view is the thieves' intimidation of motorists, including hapless tourists.

"I want to stress that these people are not just jamming meters, they're terrorizing our customers and we just can't stand for that," Manasa says with the smoothness of a talk-show host or a tour guide, the words virtually gliding out from under his thick moustache. "These actions are probably not going to faze many Miami residents, but they scare tourists to death. They think that unless they hand over some money, these bums will break into their car."

Although meter fraud has plagued the city for years, it grew far worse in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, Manasa explains. In the weeks after the storm, a moratorium was declared on writing parking tickets. Enforcement officers, helping distribute food and water to victims, were unable to keep tabs on the more than 7000 meters that line the city's streets. Wendell Banks and his partners in crime became more emboldened.

In January, at the peak of the illegal activity, meter thefts accounted for the loss of some $36,000. The tampering has abated slightly since then because of increased patrolling, but it is far from under control. The worst area by far used to be the six meter lots in the median of Biscayne Boulevard between Flagler Street and Bayside, both magnets for tourists. Last year the lots accounted for almost one-third of some $3.2 million in change the city retrieved from its parking meters. (Most meters in Miami mark fifteen minutes of time for each quarter.) That was before people began jamming an average of 100 of the boulevard's 280 meters each day.

On May 1, the parking authority reacted by ordering the meters covered with red-and-white plastic bags. Now the lots are managed by attendants who charge flat fees A two dollars for two hours of parking, four dollars for four hours. Asked if the new system is proving profitable, Manasa shrugs and says he still hasn't determined whether motorists' money will cover attendants' salaries. In addition, patrol officers must still check the lots and collect money from attendants to deter robberies. But if the lots do make money, Manasa adds, the plan will be extended to other areas of the city.

That scenario does not surprise Orlando Borges, one of six city employees who repair an average of 100 meters per day in downtown Miami. As he works on a broken meter in the lot on S.W. First Street, Borges complains that the bandits are likely to undo his efforts within hours. "They're thinking about bagging these meters here, too," he says, probing the guts of one of the wounded.

As he gently lowers the mass of gears and wheels back into the meter's casing, the meter doctor nods toward a broken brick lying on the pavement nearby. "They use those to knock the side if it jams without any time on it," he says sadly. "It really screws up their insides. It's a darn shame."

Borges blames the street scam artists. He also has a bone to pick with the many Miami-Dade Community College students, the lawyers, the bankers, and the other professionals who have learned by watching. "I saw this guy getting out of Mercedes the other day," he recalls disdainfully. "Nicely dressed. Looked like a lawyer. And the first thing he does is call one of these guys over to fix the meter for him. It's disgusting."

His dark mood lifts only when the conversation turns to his area of expertise A all those pawls, winding rings, and other meter parts with Jabberwocky names.

Fulfilling Borges's prophecy, Wendell Banks has begun working the lot just hours after the repairman's departure. He, too, understands the innards of the meters. Though he's never actually seen them, he's shot them full of plenty of bullets, as the vandals call the tools of their trade. Banks relates a short history of meter plunder, beginning with the days several years ago when he and his mates used steak knives to manipulate the slots. The city changed the meter design to prevent the practice. "So then we started using shaved pennies," Banks continues, explaining how they wore down pennies by rubbing them on the sidewalk. "They worked real well in the dime slots. City changed the meter again. Now it takes only quarters. So now we shootin' these bullets here."

Carried away by his lecture, Banks has impulsively decided to reveal the key to Miami meter-beating. The metal object in the middle of his wide palm glitters in the sunlight. The tab from an aluminum beverage can.

Not just any tab. Only tabs from Magnum Malt Liquor and certain cans of Coca-Cola will do, says Banks; he and other shooters spend their spare time scouring streets and digging through garbage bins for suitable aluminum.

Such persistence has sent city parking officials back to the drawing board. They're testing a meter in which quarters trigger a digital display instead of the current spring/arrow analog mechanism. Unfortunately, the five sample devices on Biscayne Boulevard between Second and Third streets are losing their battery charges too quickly.

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Stan Yarbro